On a bare stage, Bill T. Jones is dancing a duet with an invisible partner. He fixes his gaze as if in thrall to someone beside him; his lips move in a silent call. Then his mood darkens. Like a wounded god, he slashes the air. The muscles of his chiseled physique tighten as he starts to spin, faster and faster, until he freezes, lost in time, with one clenched fist aimed at some enemy above. Slowly the fingers droop, the hand flops down onto his dark, glistening chest. His defiant pose melts into a gesture of acceptance. He is alone again.
Afterward, inundated by cheers and applause, Jones, 37, smiles distantly. At the end of the performance, he explains later, his thoughts remain with the partner he has conjured onstage. But then the vision dims. All the furious passion of Absence, the dance inspired by Jones’s former collaborator and lover, cannot bring back Arnie Zane, who died a year ago at 39 of AIDS-related lymphoma. “I shared the stage with Arnie so many times that I ache to think of it,” says Jones. “He’s gone, and I know my moves, but I don’t know his moves, and I miss him.”
For the past year, Jones has lived out a tribute to Zane, not just by retaining his late partner’s name in the title of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company, but by leading the 10-member New York-based troupe to sublime achievements. After a performance of Absence at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., last month, critic Robert Jones wrote that the dance possessed “a shimmering, ecstatic quality that was euphoric and almost unbearably moving.” Jones’s dancers, who are touring the East Coast this summer and will appear at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., this week, have grown accustomed to such raves. It is their look as well as their grace that delights, for the troupe is a striking study in contrasts. On a simply decorated stage, women both black and white spin and leap with such disparate partners as Arthur Aviles, a 5’4″, 145-lb. Puerto Rican athlete with a shaved head, and Lawrence Goldhuber, a hulking white 6’1″ former actor.
In many ways, the troupe’s founders were opposites as well. A short, wiry white man who ran on nervous energy, Zane could not have been more different physically from Jones, a black six-footer with a gentle manner and elegant features. But both Jones, who began dancing at 19, and Zane, who first danced at 24, prided themselves on breaking rules during their powerful duets. “We used to turn up our noses at refined technique,” says Jones. “We thought it made for dead art. Instead we’d look for the beauty in falling, running or in watching a large person jump.”
Zane’s ideas still guide the troupe. His taped voice—recounting two of his dreams—accompanies one of the group’s new duets, and the company regularly performs the last piece he choreographed. “I think of Arnie before I go onstage,” says dancer Janet Lilly, 31. “He was always in the wings, cheering us on.” Yet Jones emphasizes that Zane’s death is only one of many issues addressed onstage. “A dance can come from my fears about aging or about the betrayal of the environment,” he says. “I just want this funky company to say, ‘Yeah, life hurts like hell, but this is how I keep going. I have a sense of humor. I’ve got my brothers and sisters. I’ve got the ability to make something out of nothing. I can clap my hands and make magic.’ ”
Jones developed his fighting optimism while growing up in rural Wayland, N.Y. The 10th of 12 children, he helped his siblings harvest local produce when their parents, who worked on farms and later in factories, couldn’t make ends meet. An award-winning high school actor and track star, he redirected his interests at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “A lot of things were changing in my life, one of which was meeting Arnie and starting my first relationship with a man,” says Jones. “I didn’t feel comfortable being a jock anymore, and the theater department was too conservative for me. So dance reared its beautiful head.”
Zane, an art and biology student from New York City, began a 15-year collaboration with Jones when a mutual friend asked them to dance together in a 1973 student performance. A year later Jones and Zane helped create the American Dance Asylum, a modern-dance collective they nurtured in Binghamton. “We were opposed to going to New York City,” says Jones. “It was a place where you lost your soul.” Yet Babylon beckoned. Their first performances in Manhattan won them glowing reviews and a deluge of invitations to perform, so in 1979 they compromised, moving to suburban Rockland County. In 1982, after nine years of performing duets, they formed a company that bore their names, hiring designers—including the late Willi Smith—to make costumes and visual artists such as Keith Haring and Robert Longo to design sets.
But the thrill of success was short-lived. In the mid 1980s, Zane began to develop strange rashes, temperatures and a tooth infection that wouldn’t heal. Told that he had the AIDS virus, he fought back with every possible remedy—vitamins, macrobiotics, Chinese herbs—and kept dancing. Jones feared that investors might react negatively if Zane announced his illness. But Zane, hoping to educate people about the disease, went public. “Living and dying is not the big issue,” he said on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1987. “The big issue is what you’re going to do with your time while you’re here. I [am] determined to perform.” His condition brought financial hardships as well. The troupe toured less often and nearly declared bankruptcy in 1988 but was saved by a group of artist friends who sold their works to raise $100,000.
When Zane died in March of that year, Jones found strength in the company. “They saw me on the bathroom floor screaming like a baby when Arnie’s body was taken away,” he says. “And they kept me going. Right away, we went into rehearsal and started new pieces.”
Today, Jones, who is apparently healthy and will not discuss whether or not he has tested HIV-positive, continues to confront tragedy head-on. In October 1988, after troupe member Demian Acquavella experienced the first symptoms of AIDS, Jones choreographed D-Man in the Waters, an upbeat romp in which dancers Ring themselves boldly through sometimes treacherous imaginary seas. Earlier this year, when Acquavella was too ill to dance, Jones would carry him onstage for the piece. “It was difficult for all of us,” recalls troupe member Aviles, 26. “Sometimes I would go onstage crying. But the most important thing is to give Demian his glory.”
With a PBS special, a major premiere at the Houston Grand Opera this fall and a debut at the Munich Opera Festival next year, the Jones/Zane troupe seems certain to earn glory to spare. “Audiences will remember that they saw a man on fire,” Jones says, “a man who believes in life. That is what I can give them.”